First Speech: Pat Conroy MP

Member for Charlton, New South Wales

14 November 2013

Mr CONROY (Charlton) (09:22): Thank you, Madam Speaker. It is an immense privilege to stand here as a member of parliament, a representative of the people of Charlton and a member of the Australian Labor Party. I am a beneficiary of an Australia that has been shaped by Labor governments. My mother and her mother survived on pensions first instituted by the Fisher government. My grandfather served in the Army and his prospects of surviving World War II were boosted by the brave and visionary actions of John Curtin. My father came to this country under the expanded immigration systems developed by the Chifley government. I received an education courtesy of the investments in universities by the Whitlam, Hawke and Keating governments. My brother's construction job was saved due to the Rudd government's decisive actions during the GFC. My daughter will come of age in a nation that has elected a female Prime Minister in Julia Gillard. These experiences are but one reason I am passionately committed to the Labor cause and drive my continuing involvement in politics.

I was raised in a family that emphasised the importance of the labour movement in making Australia great, not in an abstract sense but as a place for people to work and live fulfilling lives. My parents were union delegates throughout their lives and long-time Labor activists. I thank my mother and father for instilling in me the crucial Labor values of social justice, equity and fairness. I could not have grown up with better brothers than Chris and Matthew, and I thank them for their love and friendship. My deepest thanks are reserved for my darling wife, Keara. Meeting Keara was the most fortunate event that has ever occurred in my life. Keara's commitment to social justice and her compassion inspire me daily.

In May this year, Keara gave birth to our beautiful daughter, Rachel. Keara, with help from her mum, Gail, looked after Rachel as I won preselection and then fought the general election. Keara, I will be forever grateful for the responsibility you carried during this period and for your unswerving support for this endeavour that inevitably places a heavy burden on you. For my daughter, Rachel, I apologise in advance for my absences. It is often remarked in parliament that it is our families that suffer the most. Rachel, I promise that I will be the best father I can be. Your smiles and laughs already enthral me. I commit myself to public service in the hope that I will make this country a better place for my daughter and for her generation.

I thank all the campaign volunteers that helped during the election. There are too many to name individually, but thank you to everyone. It was a remarkable effort given that I was not preselected till six weeks prior to the election. On that note I would sincerely like to thank all the Charlton branch members for placing their trust in me as their candidate. Branches are the heart and soul of the Labor Party, as I am sure everyone on this side would agree with, and I look forward to working with them in the years to come. I thank my campaign team of Yasmin Catley, Adam Schultz, Heather Robinson, Nicholas Mowbray, Melissa Cleary and Deahnna Richardson for their efforts and good spirits. It is often remarked that having an adviser as a candidate is a very dangerous thing, and they certainly experienced that.

I would also like to thank all my friends and family who travelled considerable distances to help. In particular I would like to thank my Young Labor mates Melissa Collins, Jason Kara, Liam Hogan and Joel Conomos who went above and beyond. I am also intensely grateful to the unions who provided support during the campaign and still embody the highest and greatest labour values. I particularly acknowledge the mineworkers, the MUA, United Voice, AWU, AMWU, SDA and the IEU. As a union organiser I travelled to many regional communities and have seen the impact a unionised workforce has on the workplace and the local community. These communities are fairer and more harmonious places because of union activism. I am proud to be a unionist.

I believe that empathy—putting oneself in the shoes of another—is a crucial quality to have. Recognising that the accident of birth gave me a great advantage over other people in our society and in other countries has driven my passion for politics. It leads to questions such as: what would my life be like if I were born to parents less interested in reading or in a nation without a quality public education system? Where would I be if I were born in a country where there was no government assistance to diagnose and treat the comparatively mild childhood disorder I had? Not only would I have not realised my potential; my contribution to society would be reduced.

This approach was deeply influenced by my mother's experiences as a single mother in the late 1960s. She was one of the early campaigners for single mother's pensions and feminism. My mum then became a social worker and eventually an electorate officer. Growing up, I remember watching my mother help many people struggling with poverty, abusive relationships and mental health issues. This shaped my approach to politics and life in general. I firmly believe we have an obligation to improve society and leave the world a better place than we found it.

I am passionate about politics because of the power of governments to improve people's lives. We are not isolated organisms that succeed or fail solely because of our individual efforts or genetic inheritance. We succeed when society is fair, when a child has a chance to fulfil their potential based on hard work and ability, not based on their parents' wealth. That is why I joined the Labor Party and have taken the opportunity to become a parliamentarian.

Labor embodies that reforming progressive spirit of the nation. Labor has never been content to sit idly by, smugly sanguine that an invisible hand will make it better. Labor governments have instituted most of the significant reforms that Commonwealth governments have made. Whether it is the social safety net, modernising our economy, supporting fair working conditions, investing in infrastructure, protecting human rights and the environment or advancing our sovereignty, it is Labor that has done the lion's share.

Labor's reforms are driven by fundamental values that are the golden thread that run through our history—equity; social justice; fairness. These values were expressed in the policy priorities that drove the last Labor government. The Labor Party should be proud of its record in government. The response to the global financial crisis was a great example of Labor values in action. The government's response was timely, temporary and targeted. It ensured that, while most developed nations suffered high unemployment, Australia was saved from the massive economic, social and personal damage that mass unemployment brings. I have witnessed the impact of mass unemployment. It is a cancer that eats away at the soul and it must be confronted wherever it exists.

The National Broadband Network, which is the greatest nation-building initiative since the Snowy Hydro scheme, is a Labor reform through and through. DisabilityCare and the Better Schools Plan will have a deep and meaningful impact on the lives of most Australians. These are all practical manifestations of Labor values and they embody the reforming spirit of the nation. These values must drive our approach to economic policy. If we are to prosper we must have a strong economy—an economy that delivers well-paid, secure jobs for all Australians; an economy that attacks inequality rather than perpetuates it; a mixed economy that has a strong role for government and the community sector, as well as the market. Neoclassical economics is not the solution to all our economic challenges and when blindly applied can cause incredible damage to both societies and economies.

As in the 1930s, the global financial crisis proved that Keynesian economics is the only solution in a time of economic crisis. Nations whose leaders ignored the lessons of the Great Depression and instituted austerity measures are those paying the greatest economic and social cost. Every Australian should have the right to a well-paid, secure job. My family has experienced the debilitating effect that long-term unemployment has on individuals and our loved ones. It destroys self-esteem and rips apart families. I am passionately committed to fighting for more jobs in Australia and it will be the central cause of my political life upon which everything else will rest.

A Keynesian macroeconomic approach must be coupled with policies focused on increasing productivity and innovation. This is the only way Australia can compete in the 21st century and it requires an active and engaged government, not an absent government. Productivity during the Hawke-Keating governments grew very strongly. We also saw strong growth in labour productivity in the last years of the Rudd-Gillard governments. For too long some in the coalition and some of the more simplistic elements within the business community have blamed industrial relations for stagnating productivity. Nothing could be further from the truth. If the new government focuses on reducing workplace rights as the path to productivity they are making the same mistake the Howard government made. This is the low road that leads to stagnant productivity and declining competitiveness. The path to higher productivity is through a cooperative workplace culture, strong capital investment, solid training, dedicated political and industry leadership and a commitment to innovation. The last two Labor governments were very focused on these five factors and Australia is stronger for it.

I am proud to be closely associated with policies developed to boost innovation, principally through the $1 billion Plan for Australian Jobs. This plan had at its heart a half-a-billion-dollar initiative to promote the growth of industry precincts or clusters. I urge the new government to continue this plan. It is a plan driven by the tripartite manufacturing taskforce and represents the culmination of learning from experiences both in Australia and internationally. If we are to have the industries of the future, government must play an active role.

Another great challenge for the Australian economy is how to compete in a low-carbon global economy. This is a neglected segment of the climate change debate. I firmly believe that those opposed to combating climate change are not only condemning future generations to a deteriorating natural environment but also condemning Australia to become a rust-belt economy. The science of climate change is decided. No other government in the world questions the science; no other Prime Minister calls the science 'crap'.

We have a responsibility to play our part in combatting climate change, and an emissions trading scheme as legislated by the last government is the best way of doing this. Despite the disgraceful exaggeration of those opposite, the implementation of the carbon price was smooth. The inflationary impact was modest; nine out of 10 households were compensated; 140,000 jobs have been created since the carbon price began; and the stock market has grown by 32 per cent. And guess what—our emissions are at worst flat, if not falling.

Over one billion people now live in countries or provinces where there is a price on carbon; by 2016, there will be around three billion people. Do those opposite really think we can do nothing? Do they not think our trading partners will demand that we take action? Do they really think that the US and China will be fooled by their expensive Direct Action fig leaf? I have sat in negotiations on this issue with our trade partners and it is clear to me that the government is kidding itself if it thinks Australia can get away with doing nothing.

Beyond the danger of trade retaliation, it is in our economic interest to decouple our economic growth from carbon pollution. Other nations such as China and Germany understand the huge opportunities associated with developing the industries that find solutions to climate change. The countries that develop these clean technologies will prosper the most in the 21st century. Every previous industrial revolution has demonstrated that. We can be part of the low-carbon industrial revolution or we can condemn Australian industry to being the rust-belt of the Asia-Pacific. For the sake of my daughter and her generation I will fight for Australia to be part of this industrial revolution while the current government is delivering the latter scenario.

It is sad but true to say that the new government's approach to climate change is entirely consistent with their wider belief in a do-nothing government. They proudly proclaim that government should get out of the way and not that government should promote equity, fairness and social justice. Just as Prime Minister Howard ensured that the Liberal Party was truly a conservative party, the current Prime Minister has ensured that it is now the Democratic Labor Party reborn. The new government's policy priorities are defined as reaction and opposition to progressive policy. They have made the transition from the most negative opposition in Australian political history to the most negative government. Whether it is attempting to stop Australians getting a fair share of super profits from the mining boom, repealing the carbon price or pulling the plug on the NBN, this government has no vision for the future besides a pathetic yearning for a mythical past. 7 September was a victory for reaction, not liberalism. The party of Deakin is no more.

I am reminded of a saying of Franklin D Roosevelt, which I paraphrase: 'A conservative is a man with two perfectly good legs who, however, has never learned to walk forward. A reactionary is a sleepwalker walking backwards.' I would submit that the policies and beliefs of the new coalition government embody the worst aspects of both conservatives and reactionaries.

Labor will always be positive in government and in opposition we will hold coalition governments to account and present our superior vision for the nation. This approach, driven by values and a commitment to progressive reform, will drive me as I represent Charlton. I am acutely conscious that I follow in formidable footsteps in Charlton. Areas now in the electorate have been represented by giants of the Labor movement, notably Matthew Charlton, Doc Evatt and most recently Greg Combet.

I had the honour of working alongside Greg in the labour movement for many years before I became his principal policy adviser after the 2007 election. I have never met a more fundamentally decent human being. Greg is a man of great integrity, patience and compassion.

I learned much from him, not the least to stay calm under pressure, to patiently evaluate the facts before making a decision and to never forget that serving as a member of parliament is a great privilege, a privilege that should never be taken for granted and a privilege that must always be used to improve society.

Greg entered parliament with a lifetime of achievement behind him, a record within the labour movement perhaps only matched by Bob Hawke and Bill Kelty. He built on this with his achievements in government, including putting a fair and effective price on carbon; developing a $1 billion industry policy; and reforming defence procurement. I wish Greg all the best in the next stage of his life, including every possible happiness.

If I can turn to the electorate I represent: Charlton is made up of the western suburbs of Newcastle and west Lake Macquarie. There is a large Indigenous community in Charlton and I extend my respects to the traditional owners of the lands within the electorate: the Awabakal people and their elders.

New residential estates in areas such as Minmi, Cooranbong, Morisset and Wyee will significantly boost the number of young families living in Charlton. This presents challenges and opportunities. As the local federal MP, my focus will be to help the community maintain and grow the Charlton economy; build the necessary infrastructure to accommodate this growth; find solutions to the increased demand for health and aged-care services; and deliver the best quality education for all children.

The project I am most passionate about is the completion of the Glendale Transport Interchange. This project has been identified by the 11 combined Hunter councils as the most important infrastructure requirement in the region. Already close to $40 million has been invested in this project to upgrade and build new roads in the Stockland precinct and Cardiff Industrial Estate. I am incredibly proud that the last Labor government, along with the then Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, the member for Grayndler, funded this project. This project will bring thousands of new jobs and residents into the western suburbs of Newcastle. It will cement Glendale as the geographic and economic heart of the lower Hunter, linking the Hunter Valley with the town of Newcastle. However, to realise the full economic benefit of this project the Pennant Street Bridge and a railway station must be constructed.

The New South Wales government is planning to privatise the Port of Newcastle, potentially raising up to $1 billion, some of which is earmarked for infrastructure investment in the inner city of Newcastle. Without endorsing this privatisation, if the port is to be sold then it is crucial that funds be allocated to finish the Glendale Transport Interchange.

It is the people of the broader Hunter region who work and produce the wealth conveyed through this port. The interchange is the most important infrastructure for the region and, if it goes ahead, should be funded by the proceeds of the sale.

The Charlton economy is quite diverse, with a mix of traditional and new industries. For example, we house John Hunter Hospital, the only trauma hospital between Sydney and Brisbane. Hunter New England Health is the biggest employer in the region. Labor funded the Hunter Medical Research Institute, which is undertaking groundbreaking research that will help future generations. At the same time, we have a very significant heavy engineering and manufacturing industry. We make trains, supply the ADF, support the mining industry and export around the world.

Fundamentally, however, this is a region built on coalmining and energy production. I am proud to say that in Charlton we have six coalmines still in operation and Australia's largest power station. Coalmining began as soon as European settlement began and it permeates every aspect of life in the Hunter.

This diverse economy presents many challenges, challenges which mirror those confronting the nation and which I am passionate about confronting. Principally, how do we ensure the continuing prosperity of traditional industries such as mining and manufacturing while embracing new industries that can grow and provide new employment such as medical research and clean technologies? This is a challenge I will pursue in my time in this place.

I want to finish by thanking everyone who has helped me become the person I am. I was very fortunate to have worked for and with great contributors to the labour movement. In particular, can I thank Greg Combet; the member for Grayndler, Anthony Albanese; Senator Doug Cameron; George Campbell; Dave Oliver; Jan Primrose; Luke Foley; Rod Hilton; Damian Ogden; and Jason Kara. Beyond the examples they have set, I have always appreciated their wise counsel.

In years to come I hope that all my actions in this place will be consistent with the values that I have just espoused. Anything I achieve is shared with those who have shaped me and who have made sacrifices for my career.

To my family: my achievements will be your achievements. Madam Speaker, I thank you and commend the motion to the House.

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